Blades and Knives

The Edged Tool at Hand

Assortment of Knives

A guest post by Pete in Alaska What makes the knife perhaps one of the most important tools you could have in the field or… anywhere? Stop for a moment and consider what you could use a good blade for on any given day.

Go ahead, take five seconds and count them up—surprised? The important question is, “What tool will serve me wherever I find myself?”

What makes a good edged field tool? How do you make a choice with so many options? For this discussion, let’s just consider fixed-blade knives. You need a foundation with the following “must-haves” (and they are also important in other edged tools).

Consider These Elements

  1. Full tang blade, essential for strength
  2. Non-slip or composite grips contoured for safety and positive handling
  3. Chip, drop or Tanto point, for strength
  4. Sheath, positive lock, waterproof and durable

A Few Specifics

Environment and projected use will help determine the material type (steel) of the blade you need. Stainless steel blades are most common in today’s market, although not all stainless is equal; some types are much better than others. Stick with the better-known manufacturers when buying stainless. Your requirements help determine the construction and materials you should look for to best fill them.

As most of you are familiar with how to use a knife, not make them, the following is a basic set of guidelines to consider when searching out your next knife. These suggestions were drafted with the fixed-blade hunting knife in mind. However, they will also apply to the better classes of folders, automatics, spring-assisted and multi-tools—for the most part.


A blade with higher carbon content provides a sharper edge and longer use and is also easier to maintain. A non-stainless blade is fine. However, it requires additional care and discolors over time. It may also rust if not taken care of. Rockwell Hardness (RC) is the general standard for the hardness of the steel. It rates the steel’s flexibility (how brittle) steel may be. The RC should be somewhere between RC54 and RC59 for general use.

Blade Design

In general, you want a four to seven-inch working area or edge with an .1875- to .25-inch thick by 1.125- to 1.5-inch wide blade. Blade shape is a personal choice, however. For a multi-purpose blade, get a blade that carries its strength to the tip or point.

Stay away from the longhand thin when looking for a general service tool. The full-tang handle, where the steel of the blade continues into the handle and creates the basic handle shape, provides the greatest strength.

The handle fit should be comfortable and feel natural when held. Take the time to find the knife that fits your hand and your requirements.

NOTE: Don’t get a knife just because it looks “cool.” This is too important a tool for that.

Two multitools fully opened
Higher carbon content will provide a sharper edge for longer use and is easier to maintain.

Handle Materials

The grip should be sure, comfortable and feel solid in your hands: a non-slip grip material is your best choice. A blade should always feel secure and in control in a wet situation. The grip telegraphs the blade’s position even when you aren’t looking at it.

Consider the placement of your fingers when looking for that one knife. The new materials that are rubber-like and, when wet, seem somewhat sticky feeling in the hand are an excellent grip choice for a field knife, if for no other reason than safety in the field.


The sheath is an often overlooked but a very important part of this tool system. Bad design of the sheath spells disaster in the field. Keeping the blade in a positive, secure and safe manner is imperative. The modern thermo-plastic or ballistic nylon designs are perhaps the best for the security and safety of your knife today, not “pretty” but purpose-made carriers. Classic leather is still widely used but may cause issues with the blade and security as it gets old, worn and abused, or hasn’t been well cared for.

Multi-Tools, “Survival” and Specialty Knives

These are a category unto themselves. A multitude exist from general-purpose, such as a basic Leatherman to the Leatherman “Wave” and onto the task-specific Leatherman MUT for handling explosives. There are a number of good “toolbox in your hand” systems. Perhaps the best known of these is the Swiss Army Knife series.

Specialty knives are generally task-specific and custom knife makers may also fall into this category.

The so-called “survival” knife is, for the most part, a myth. ANY knife may be a survival knife. There are, however, several blades out there worthy of this title, such as the Cold Steel Bushman series.

Let’s hear what’s on your hip or in your pocket, on your MOLLE gear or leg… and why. Information is power, knowledge is life. Tell us in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (13)

  1. Although I have been collecting-using-trading knives for over 50 years as well, I have never understood the use of ‘hidden tang’ as being germane to a knives’ strength or handling. The fact is that it only describes the appearance of the handle and does not address the question of if the knife is stub, half, 3/4 or full tang. The very term states that you are unable to determine, by appearance, what type of tang the knife has. Why would the construct of the handle – hidden or showing – effect the strength of the weapon? Many of my older knives no longer have the handles they came with and have been replaced, but this is no reflection on the strength of the blade (including tang). I have been forced to tape a handle on, or just wrap the tang in duct tape in order to use it, when a handle has broken or cracked during use in the field, but this in no way is a statement on the blade/tang – it was the handles that failed. If someone can perhaps clear up what I seem to be misunderstanding it would be greatly appreciated.

    1. I believe that the intent is not to describe the strength of the blade, but the entire knife and it’s durability. Take the Spyderco Street Bowie. It is not full tang. For it’s intended purpose (self defense) it’s fine. If, however, you wished to baton firewood (heaven forbid) there would be a chance that the knife would break at the joining of the handle and blade. A full tang allows the entire force to be on the blade steel thus eliminating the weak point. Now in reality Mora’s are not full tang but have been used for generations for bushcraft so you have to decide what you are using the knife for and choose accordingly.

  2. Good article – I would just like to elaborate on one statement made about multi-tools and specialty knives. The Leatherman MUT was released in two models: the MUT Utility and the MUT EOD. The first is equipped with the basic tools found on most multi-tools, but uber stout, plus everything you need to service a M4/AR15/M16 while in the field. The second, the MUT EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) model is basically the same, with a few differences such as Fuse wire cutters instead of hard wire cutters (found on MUT Utility) and a replaceable C4 punch in place of a firearm disassembly punch.

  3. You also need to figure out how to peruse a cutting edge to choose what the best strategy for honing is. What’s more this is effortlessly rehearsed by taking your thumb and index finger and stroking the blade at different focuses along the edge from the Spine (back of the blade) to the edge. You don’t need to spend a ton of cash for a decent blade, however you do need to choose simply what you need to utilize the blade for. For example, a cleaning cutting edge and a head blade have out and out diverse purposes, as a cleaver does from an utility blade.No matter if the blade is made of stone or steel you need a proper cutting tool to start fire, clean and prepare food, as well as cut branches and cordage to make shelter.There’s so much information and varying opinions out there, thanks for presenting the facts and helping me to get a clear understanding of what I should be thinking about and considering for my handle materials purchase.Thanks and keep up the good work.

  4. When one attempts to write a blog like this, one hopes to generate discussion, comment, suggestion and add additional insight to the subject being written about. I’d like to thank you one and all for those attributes found in your comments above and the time you took to comment. My knowledge has been increased by you input on this subject. Thank you, Pete sends . . .

  5. While I agree that a cheap knife will do a job (a bamboo cane pole, a piece of string and a hook will catch a fish), I just get a lot of satifaction when using a high quality knife (as a fine fly rod and a hand tied fly will catch a fish in style). I collect knives and appriciate a makers artistic ability, choice of materials as well as functionality. I guess it just boils down to what a person values.

  6. Good article and some even better comments. One point that was not made is that of the price and style of knives. Everyone should carry what they think best, but after 50 years with knives and owning a number of high dollar knives, the knives I have gone back to for hunting and survival are basic kitchen knives and Moras.

    My favorite knife for field use is the Ontario Old Hickory 7″ Butcher knife. It costs all of $10.00 USD. I also have a couple of Moras–which cost about the same and use them as neck knives. The Moras is standard for those of us with an interest in Primitive Skills and Survival.

    If there is one thing that really bugs me, it is the idea that you need a high dollar knife. More has been written about knives than probably any subject. Those of us with a lot of years behind us tend to look at things differently than when we started.

    Today, I am only interested in thin knives that are easy to sharpen, hold an edge and are cheap. There is nothing more disconcerting than breaking a $400.00 knife in the Bush–and there is no need if you buy good cheap knives.

    Today, there is an ever growing array of specialty steels that custom knife makers are using to sell to their customers. Are they good blades? Yes they are. Will they do anything a $10-$15 knife can’t do? No, but they can do it with less wear on the edge so you don’t have to sharpen it so often.

    For a novice, that is the worst thing that you can do. The young knife enthusiast should purchase a cheap knife and sharpen it often.

    Your objective should be to put a good working edge (a good working edged defined as being able to easily slice thru a piece of typing paper with little resistance)on any knife with any piece of material available–from sandpaper, to a stone, to a piece of cardboard to a rock that you picked up from a creek bed. You should be able to sharpen the blade upside down. You can’t learn these much needed skills by purchasing a super steel that rarely needs to be sharpened.

    You also need to learn how to read a blade to decide what the best method of sharpening is. And this is easily practiced by taking your thumb and forefinger and stroking the knife at various points along the edge from the Spine (back of the knife) to the edge.

    If you learn to read a knife properly, it will be the map you will use to sharpen a blade, and you will never be in a situation where you are sharpening a blade and can’t figure out why you can’t get an edge on it.

    To give an example, the method for sharpening a Scandi grind is a little different that sharpening a flat grind. Furthermore, many hollow ground knives are very difficult to sharpen because they have a double bevel and consequently, the angle required to put a good working edge on them may have to be changed in order to compliment the grind lines. By spending time reading the blade, you can anticipate problems that you may encounter while sharpening.

  7. The comment regarding a full tang knife being stronger than a hidden tang isn’t necessarily true. A properly constructed hidden tang knife is just as strong as a full tang knife. We need only look as far as the European swords and the Japanese swords. They took an incredible beating yet were still functional and seldom broke through the handle.
    I mostly agree with the comment about stainless though. High carbon will take a much better edge due to a finer grain structure and lack of chromium carbides. There are a few stainless steels out there that are incredible performers, but they are far more expensivensive knives due to the cost of the steel. High carbon also has the added benefit of working with fire steels and flints, thereby making it a much better choice in a survival or wilderness situation. Just keep it clean and oiled and don’t store it in the sheath over long periods of time. High carbon steel has been with us for a long, long time and will continue to make quality tools.

  8. Jims right, there is no such thing as a knife thats multi purpose…I carry two a thin pocket for routine stuff from opening mail, cleaning toenails, to cutting my steak, and a 6″ full tang carbon steel blade for the tougher jobs gutting & quartering critters, cleaning fish, opening cans or just a security blanket.

  9. The functional shape, size and tooling properties of a knife to hold an edge; are paramount. A cutting tool, works best while sharp, and a person’s ability/willingness to correctly keep it sharp, is very important. Being a maker of hand carved, custom made to order leather products, an extremely sharp cutting tool, allows precision severing and carving, with little effort and little chance of personal injury. You don’t have to spend a lot of money for a good knife, but you do have to decide just what you want to use the knife for. For instance, a skinning blade and a head knife have altogether different purposes, as a machete does from a utility knife. You may need more than one knife. There is no such thing as a “multipurpose knife” if you want to do a specific task well.

  10. make sure it not STAINLESS STEEL i can not get a good edge on this rust proof product . i will admit i like a edge you could shave with [not really , just a expression] if you know how to get a good edge please post it here…………

    1. AR Shooter, I am responding to your question on sharpening stainless steel-any steel can be sharpened, but some hold an edge better than others. I think it depends on the carbon content and the rockwell hardness factors. My grandfather was a shoe repairman, he bought cheap utility knives by the dozen before the in-sertable edge types we have now. he would sharpen them all and use each one a while to see how it held an edge. He had a box for the good ones and a box for the poor performers. When all were tested he would take all the poor ones, tape up the wood handles and bury them in the garden area where there was good mulched earth and leave them there for a year. When he dug them up they were rusted some but he would sand them down and sharpen them. After that process most of them were better at holding an edge.

      When I was first married about 50 years ago, I was cleaning up the back yard of the house we first bought and found a butcher knife in the ground that the wooden handles had rotted away. I sanded it down until most of the pits faded out and then put an edge on it and attached new handles, my wife used it for years because it was always sharp. I think that there were two factors that attributed, one was the extra carbon that the blade picked up from the earth, while the thinness of the blade made it easy to slice with because of the angle of the cutting edge was more acute.

      I am a wood carver, so I have many knives with different angles of edges on the same type of knife, the angles for delicate work will roll over if you use them on heavy rough out work. The things that you learn about sharpening when you use tools for carving is that the edge is only half ready after you shape it with a stone or any abrasive then you must remove the burrs from the edge with a cutting compound on one side of a leather strap and then polish it with Zam or other good steel polish for an extreamly sharp slicing edge.

      If this does not help you AR Shooter try watching some knife techs on UTUBE if you find several versions you can pick up different ideas until you find one that makes sense to you! Dont give up its not rocket science but will make using a knife more pleasant for you once you get used to slicing things instead of tearing them with a dull instrument.

    2. Bud – I’m not sure how any knife blade could pick up carbon just by being buried (regardless how long) in the ground. The carbon content is determined when the steel is formed, and no other elements can be added after than other than some type of coating for the blade, perhaps. While a chemical action does take place when the steel rusts, when you remove the rust you remove any new or additional elements that were formed with the steel, so it remains as it was created.

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